Prophets Zephaniah, Habakkuk, Jonah, and Moses as icons

Study Notes – Habakkuk 1 1-4, 12-14

We are studying Habakkuk 1:1-4, 12-14 for Sunday, March 8. This is Habakkuk’s complaint to God about rampant wickedness and injustice in sixth century BCE Judah, both on the part of the Judeans, and on the part of the Babylonian invaders who replace them. [Some questions on the text are here.] Here are a few notes on this text:

BACKGROUND AND CONTEXT: Habakkuk is one of the “minor prophets” or “the twelve.” The book is organized as a dialogue between the prophet and God (YHWH); the prophet speaks and God answers.

The introduction to this short book in the Access Bible says:

The prophet Habakkuk is primarily concerned about believing in God’s just rule over a world that appears to be overwhelmingly unjust. In this regard, he is more like Job and the psalmists who lament undeserved suffering than he is like Israel’s other prophets. … The dialogue between Habakkuk and God around which the book is organized can best be followed if the reader keeps in mind the major concern that drives it: believing in God’s just rule in an unjust world.

That theme is timeless.

However, the prophet Habakkuk’s specific words come to us from Judah at around the time of the first Babylonian invasion and deportation of a portion of the Judahite population, around 597 BCE. Habakkuk 1:5-11 is God’s description of the Babylonians, who function as the consequence for Judah’s own violence and injustice. That may be the substance of Habakkuk’s opening complaint, or he may be bemoaning the violence of the Babylonians to come – that’s how Rashi seems to read it.

Either way, we need to remember that the Babylonians invade and conquer the kingdom of Judah in 597 BCE, deport some of the population, exact tribute, and after a disastrous Judahite rebellion, will return to destroy Jerusalem and the Temple in 587 BCE and take more people to Babylonia. Later, when the Persians defeat the Babylonians, some Judahites will be allowed to return and rebuild the Temple and the city of Jerusalem, from 539 BCE.

The first part of our text, along with the first few verses of chapter 2, are a choice on two different Sundays of Year C in the Revised Common Lectionary, the 27th or the 31st Sundays in Ordinary Time. Whether we have actually heard them preached in church may depend on our pastor’s willingness to tackle the “Where are you, God?!” theme from the pulpit.

CLOSER READING: Verse 1 introduces the whole text as the “burden” or weight that Habakkuk the prophet “saw.” The word “he saw” here is not the more usual raah but chazah, which seems a little more specific to a vision or vista.

Lots of commentators point out that Habakkuk’s lament in v2, “How long?”, is using language like that of Psalms (in particular, Psalm 13). But it seems worth noting that God does God’s share of calling and asking “how long?” in the Bible, too. (See, for instance, Isaiah 65.)

The idea of crying out and God hearing and doing something about it is a recurrent pattern in scripture, starting with Abel’s blood (Genesis 4:10), and the people in Egypt (see Exodus 3:7), and all through Judges.

Unfortunately, although Rashi reads Habakkuk’s initial cry as a response to the impending Babylonians, others (and I) read it as a cry against the situation in Judah. That situation is characterized by violence (repeated) (hamas, which can be personal – it’s Sarai’s accusation of Abram, for instance, in Genesis 16 – and includes the ideas of cruelty, malice, and injustice), and several forms of trouble or affliction or iniquity; a different kind of violence, the violence of destruction or devastation or “plundering;” along with “strife and contention”. We get the impression that everyone is at each other’s throats. Or, maybe … bullying, smashing things up, pushing people around …? Almost as if we should think of a society controlled by gangsters, or the equivalent? [Whatever the specifics, it’s a dark, Hobbesian vision; we can readily imagine it being a “burden.”]

What’s clear is that “the law” or God’s instruction (torah) has lost all its force in the situation. The word translated “slack” in v4 can mean “numb” or “weak”; we might imagine a useless arm or leg. It doesn’t “prevail,” literally, it doesn’t go out to endure. It comes out all “bent,” “twisted” [which, if we knew more Latin, is what “perverted” would mean to us].

So, in verses 5-11 God responds, in effect, wait till you see what is about to happen; this situation is going to be dealt with.

God’s answer does not seem to meet with Habakkuk’s immediate approval, however! [We might say, this way of dealing with the problem sounds like “going from the frying pan into the fire.”]

According to the Talmud, even God is not enthusiastic about this solution.

Rabbi Chana bar Acha said that the sages in the school of Rav said: There are four creations that the Holy One, Blessed be He, created, yet He, as it were, regrets that He created them, for they do more harm than good. And these are they: Exile, the Chaldeans (i.e., the Babylonians), the Ishmaelites, and the evil Inclination. (Talmud, Sukkah 52b)

What it can mean for God to regret something has to be different from what it means for people to regret something. Whatever it can mean, rabbinic readers have thought that even God sees this solution to the problem as a harsh and in some sense undesirable solution. (“I really wish you hadn’t made me do this”?)

The second sentence in v12 is unclear; NRSV translates “You shall not die,” the scribes who preserved the text wrote “We shall not die,” and according to Rashi, they meant “Do not deliver us into their hands to die.”

There are a couple of ways to read the rest of v12 (…“you have marked them for judgment”), and it is not clear to me that both of them are not true at the same time: that God has designated these people as a judgment and punishment (on Judah), and that God has marked out these people to be judged and punished (for their own violence and wickedness) – eventually, after they have served their purpose.

Even so, from Habakkuk’s perspective, this plan does not seem to be consistent with God’s character. This seems to be the idea in v13, where Habakkuk points out God’s eyes are too pure to look at evil … so why do this??? (We might say, why “countenance” or “overlook” what is going to be an intensification of violence and destruction and the disabling of the law?)

It’s as if people are nothing but fish, or bugs. Commentary on v14 seems to go a couple of ways: fish have no protection, like from a ruler; and fish are at the mercy of the elements and of everything stronger than they are – bigger fish, and fishermen; and fish don’t know anything. Moreover, the sea is a symbol of chaos in the Bible. So, fish are living in a chaotic environment, unregulated, without order or meaning.

But why use the image of fish? I have a suspicion about this. Humans have a hard time perceiving the suffering of fish. So, we don’t care about it. [I could not find the article I read, long ago, examining what it is about fish that makes us lack empathy for them; but this article by Rachel Nuwer for Nova sums it up: they have inexpressive faces, and we can’t hear them.]

This seems relevant to an understanding of Habakkuk’s complaint here. I think Habakkuk is also saying, in effect, “God, it’s like people are creatures to whom you can be totally indifferent, who don’t even suffer, or whose suffering doesn’t even register as suffering.”

Surely this is not really how God is. Is it?

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So, on Sunday we will have to do some thinking about why evil happens in a good and just God’s created world. We don’t do this often. Looking ahead, the following week we have more Habakkuk, chapter 2, dealing in more detail with what God has a problem with in the first place.

Our curriculum won’t take us to Habakkuk 3. Those of us (like me) who prefer to have things like stories and movies, and prophecies, end on a positive note, even if it has to be an empirical-reality-defying one, might want to look at it, anyway.

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Prophets Zephaniah, Habakkuk, Jonah, and Moses as icons

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